Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

Hibernation Ends With Demonstration

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Survivors of August in New Orleans greet fall like released prisoners. At some point when the unbearable heat squeezed the last shred of hope and everyone was dozing like lizards too apathetic to flick even part of a tongue at an equally apathetic fly, an evil thing happened. The city had removed all the benches from Jackson Square, the heart of New Orleans, and raped the French Quarter with heavy, ugly, green cement trash cans. It happened so quickly, the usually vigilant denizens were caught napping. Not for long. August was almost over and the natives were starting to waken anyway. Watered by the weakening bends of Tropical Depression Faye, they dragged their chairs into the Square where there used to be benches and sat until they were too wet to sit any longer. The news came and statements were made. Benches and trash cans may not seem like much of an issue -- one glimpsed among the protesters seasoned veterans of anti-war and anti-polluter campaigns -- but New Orleans, like all old cities, needs places where tourists and vagrants can rest their weary bones while being entertained. The vagrant question, which the councilman responsible for this esthetic and civic crime insisted on calling "bums," is whether a city without vagrants is a city at all. New Orleans has been a destination point for adventurous souls since the founders had the egregious idea of settling in a swamp. The vagrants perform a great civic service by giving tourists a FRISSON of the genuine because every tourist thinks of herself as at least part "vagrant" for coming to New Orleans, whether as part of a computer convention or to Jazz Fest. The essence of New Orleans is invested in a history of vagrancy, vice and pirate vibes. If blithe city officials strip the city of its unsavory mysteries, all they'll get is an antiseptic museum good only for the dead. Unfortunately, it is already somewhat like that. Entities like the Vieux Carre Commission, in charge of "historical authenticity," are little more than fronts for realtors selling the city to out-of-towners for weekend parties. As my friend John, a poet, put it, "If they want historical authenticity they should have dead mules on the street, rats running everywhere, drunk sailors, and whores on the balconies." What is history, exactly? For an answer to that, read The Mysteries of New Orleans, a novel written in the mid-19th century by Baron von Reizenstein, just published by Johns Hopkins University Press. The Baron wrote The Mysteries as a serial for one of the two German newspapers here. Here is the history. One thousand "Vieux Carre" commissions and 300 beauty-deaf city councilmen couldn't bring back 10 percent of that history. They shouldn't even try. All we want is our benches back in Jackson Square -- and the right to be entertained in our own streets. And those ugly trash cans have to go! Even the worst History throws up when it sees those!

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